Out of all my elderly relatives, I always felt particularly close to my paternal grandmother, who died almost forty years ago, when she was aged well into her nineties. And my last ever visit to her in her nursing home proved to be unexpectedly memorable.
She was extremely frail by that stage, and almost completely incapacitated, reduced to sitting in her armchair in her little room for much of each day, although her mind remained as sharp as ever right to the end. And having visited her on that particular day, as I was preparing to leave, suddenly something very strange and completely unexpected happened.
It may just have been a trick of the light; perhaps a sudden shaft of sunlight catching her face from a particular angle; but just for a fleeting moment her face was lit up; I could glimpse the structure of a face that had once been extremely beautiful beneath an expression of total peace. She looked radiant. And I heard myself saying aloud to her, ‘You are beautiful!’ She looked up at me, positively glowing: ‘Thank you’, she said, ‘Thank you.’ And that turned out to be my last ever conversation with her, because a couple of days later, she died. That final moment, in that final encounter with her was such a gift – and such an unexpected gift, at that.
I was reminded of that encounter when musing on today’s Gospel reading. Here we are, the final Sunday before the start of Lent, the season of penitence and lament and spiritual self-examination which begins in three days’ time, on Ash Wednesday. And what is our gospel reading for today? It is that weird and rather perplexing story about the Transfiguration of Jesus, in which Jesus goes up a mountain with Peter, James and John, and is suddenly and dramatically transformed before their very eyes, into a figure clothed in dazzling white. They literally do see him in a completely new light.
Now, you might with justification be wondering why we heard that particular story today – on the final Sunday before the beginning of Lent – particularly because, as any liturgical anoraks amongst you will know, the event of the Transfiguration already has its very own special feast day in the Church’s calendar, on 6th August. Why do we hear it again now?
It is worth remembering that, although they didn’t realise it at the time, the Transfiguration was not simply a profoundly eye-opening moment of insight and inspiration for the disciples. Much more importantly, it was an event which eventually they would look back to as a key to helping them to make sense of the dramatic events that were about to begin unfolding around them. Because at the Transfiguration, the disciples are being given a foretaste of what ultimately awaits them, the other side of all the pain and anguish: namely, the Risen, Ascended, and Glorified Christ. They are given a glimpse of glory. (Remember that word, by the way.)
But at the time that the Transfiguration happened, Peter’s reaction to this mind-blowing event is all too recognizably human: he wants to seize that moment and bottle it – to keep hold of it for all time. ‘Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah’, he says. But Peter has completely misunderstood the nature and significance of the event. Because properly understood, the Transfiguration of Jesus functions a bit like a trailer for a forthcoming film or tv series. And although a trailer can certainly whet your appetite for a wonderful film (after all, that is what it is designed to do) it can never be a substitute for the film itself – indeed, it is generally the case that it is only when you see the film that you can begin to understand what is really going on in the trailer.
And so, as we get ready to enter the season of Lent, in which we prepare ourselves for the life-changing events of Holy Week and Easter, the Transfiguration – that fleeting moment of insight into what it is that lies at the end of the journey is very well timed indeed.
‘Glory’ is a word that crops up quite a lot in Christian worship, and a great deal in the Bible, but it is actually quite a tricky concept to explain. Something that I came across the other day, which I found very helpful was the idea that ‘glory’ is what you glimpse when three really important things come together, coinciding suddenly and wonderfully: those three things being beauty, truth, and goodness. Taken on their own, each one of them is precious enough, of course: an encounter with beauty can stop us in our tracks momentarily; it can open our eyes and touch our hearts, particularly when we glimpse beauty in a person or a situation where we don’t expect it.
But beauty is by its very nature transient: the most beautiful of human beings cannot withstand the disfigurement and destructive power of death. The same might be said of goodness, too. Truth can be regarded as timeless, but truth can also be ugly. However, when beauty, truth and goodness coincide, in that instant it is glory that you behold – and glory is by its very nature divine: it reveals the God who is the embodiment of beauty and truth and goodness. And that moment – that encounter with glory, cannot but be transformative.
We are celebrating two very special events here in church this morning. First, we are welcoming into the family of the church through her baptism, our very newest little member, Charlotte. For her this is a whole new beginning marking the start of her spiritual journey. None of us can know where that path will lead her, of course, but today we surround her with our love and prayers in this public affirmation of our support for her on her journey. And from now on, alongside her own wonderful family (she has chosen her parents very well, by the way), wherever in the world her life will take her, as a baptized member of the Church of Christ, she will also always be part of a spiritual family that transcends all boundaries of geography and culture.
And we are celebrating another new beginning today, as we have the privilege of asking God’s blessing upon the new Master of one of our Livery Companies – the Worshipful Company of Marketors, at the start of his term of office. So we are marking another new start, another new beginning, as well.
I love occasions like these, because, in and through them, we are given a glimpse of the future – a future that is filled with promise and hope, and as we are united in sharing that precious moment, and inviting God’s blessing upon them, we are invited to participate in that glimpse of glory.
Inevitably there will also be challenges, and disappointments along the way – that is a feature of human life. But every little glimpse of glory that we are granted is a foretaste of the place to which we are all eventually called: to be held within the arms of God, transfigured by his love and grace.
One of my favourite modern poets to write on religious themes is Ann Lewin. She has a beautiful and very short poem on the theme of our Gospel reading, the Transfiguration, which reminds us of our need to keep awake; to keep alert – for unless our eyes are open, we shall miss that sacred moment altogether. I shall leave you with her words:
It would be good to stay there,
But clutch it, and it’s gone.
They come unheralded,
Those moments of dazzling clarity,
And leave us as suddenly.
As well try catch the kingfisher
Darting through stillness.
Be thankful for its jewelled beauty,
And keep awake, alert.